He may not have been “The Greatest,” but Joe Frazier was recognized as a great fighter in his own right. He famously took Muhammed Ali to the limit in three epic battles.
Frazier died last night following a short battle with liver cancer. He was 67.
“He wasn’t so much a boxer as he was a fighter,” Former Yankees broadcaster Charley Steiner tells FishbowlNY. “A tough S.O.B. who left it all in the ring every time he fought.”
In 1971, Frazier outslugged his nemesis in a 15-round decision, a fight at Madison Square Garden aptly hyped as the “Fight of the Century.”
“Smokin’ Joe” and Ali would battle in two more classic bouts, concluding in 1975 with The Thrilla in Manila.
Former WPIX/Channel 11 sports anchor Sal Marchiano, previewing the fight for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, got an unwelcomed surprise after talking to Frazier.
“When we finished, we shook hands and the perspiring Joe got up and turned right and jumped into the pool to cool off. “Joe thought he was in the shallow end. He sank to the bottom because he didn’t know how to swim,” Marchiano recalls for FishbowlNY. ”With one half of the multi-million dollar attraction under water, Frazier’s shocked handlers jumped into the pool and saved him from drowning, giving all the sports columnists a fresh angle for their Sunday sports sections.”
That scare notwithstanding, Frazier forced Ali to use every ounce of strength to defeat his foe again. It is viewed by many boxing historians as one of the best fights of the 20th century.
Frazier trainee Eddie Futch threw in the towel after 14 battered rounds. Ali said in a post-fight interview, “He is the greatest fighter of all times, next to me!”
Ali would say that Frazier brings out the best in him.
“He was Jerry Lewis to Ali’s Dean Martin. Lou Costello to Ali’s Bud Abbott. Tommy Smothers to Dick. He was the Teller to Penn Jillette,” Steiner, a former ESPN boxing commentator, says. ”He was Ali’s straight man, and neither would have been the same without the other. It took until maybe the last 10 years of his life to come to terms with that.”
Steiner, the current Dodgers radio play-by-play announcer, recalls one night he shared with the two combatants 20 years ago in Atlantic City.
“The best way to describe it was — an evening of creative tension,” Steiner says.
Before arriving in New York, sportscaster Len Berman had the chance to interview Frazier, and gain another perspective on the fighter.
“He came to Boston with a band. His singing was dreadful, but we all pretended it was good,” Berman admits. “I’m sad he never got the respect as a boxer he deserved. Muhammad Ali is to blame for that.”